BY Alex Farquharson in Reviews | 11 NOV 99
Featured in
Issue 49

In The Midst Of Things

BY Alex Farquharson in Reviews | 11 NOV 99

If most people in Britain know the name Bournville as a brand of dark chocolate, fewer know it as the fascinating suburb of Birmingham from which its name derives. In the latter half of the 19th century, George Cadbury, Quaker confectionery magnate, built an ideal town for his workers in the grounds of his factory, Bournville, which became one of the most ambitious attempts to realise the principles of the Victorian Arts and Crafts movement. An oasis set in the midst of industrial slums, it has individually designed houses, village shops, a church with elaborate bells, an ornamental park and a cricket ground.

One hundred years on, not much has changed. Bournville's factories still produce vast amounts of chocolate, its houses and land are protected by a trust, and the surrounding suburbs remain somewhat down at heel. The only thing that might wrong foot George Cadbury today is the recent addition of 'Cadbury World', a theme park brown town inhabited by brown automatons and dedicated to all things chocolate - staff cars are shaped like giant Cadbury's Creme Eggs. Had he visited this Autumn he might have been less aggrieved at the sight of work by 28 contemporary artists placed in a variety of locations in his model town.

In keeping with the principles of Bournville, the show's curators Nigel Prince and Gavin Wade included artists whose work is concerned with the intersection of art, design and architecture. Jim Isermann made wallpaper in primary colours based on the distinctive brickwork pattern common to many buildings in Bournville. Applied to almost every outdoor public notice board and hoarding on the site, the piece Untitled (Wallpaper 0399) (1999), was a unifying, Californian, Modernist leitmotif that paid homage to, and updated, the aesthetic cohesion of the Victorian site. Also in several locations were Darren Lago's rectangular plots of cabbages, Chocolate Garden (1999), which were as near to Cadbury purple as nature - and Cadbury's horticultural advisors - could get. Cornford and Cross also took this corporate livery one step further by filling a man-made, ornamental pond in the Women's Recreation Ground with water coloured with food dye. The commission meant restoring the original feature and adding two fountains.

Interventions by artists in old-fashioned, ingenuous locations are often marked by a certain cynicism and exploitation. 'In the Midst of Things' took inspiration from the site, formed relationships between artists and its residents, and made permanent improvements to the location on both the artists' and inhabitants' terms. Kathrin Bohm offered her professional services to replace the worn-out canopies over the windows of the workers' canteen. Her new ones, Canopies (1999), designed in co-operation with Cadbury's staff, formed an outdoor installation of five square canvases, tilted at 45 degree angles, painted sky blue and sand yellow like beach holiday Brice Mardens. They overlooked an outstanding pavilion by Dan Graham - Two-way Mirror Open Shoji Screen With Climbing Vines Labyrinth (1989-99) - made of two-way mirror and trellis holding climbing vines: a pseudo-functional, spatial play of interiors and exteriors, the natural and the manufactured.

Gary Perkins presented his best piece to date in the education room of Cadbury World, Soon, all this will be yours...(1999), in which a fan shaped diorama confused several domestic interiors with garden and patio scenes littered with cars on blocks and other suburban detritus. Four tiny cameras on a rotating arm combed the scene transmitting lifelike footage at different speeds (depending, cleverly, on each one's point on the arm), to a CCTV monitor positioned alongside. Nina Saunders' melted floral sofa, Never (1999), similarly macabre, dripped under the door of the Porter's Lodge - a tiny outdoor room surrounded by windows - that she had carpeted in rose pink.

A large shipping crate-turned-canteen by Atelier Van Lieshout, AvL Canteen, combined aesthetics, function and mobility in a manner that recalled the Bauhaus, while evoking the paranoia of survivalist militia groups. Harty and Harty's hilarious architectural model for an 18 hole golf course-skyscraper The Vertical Golf Course (1999) - each floor a fairway - represented something bizarre, functioning, attainable and actually desirable. Andrea Zittel and Sebastian Clough's SCAZ Sluice Bucket (1999), provides workers with an underwater view of their small murky factory reservoir and is a similarly potty take on the legacy of Victorian exploration and invention.

The show was at its strongest when these and other works were located with wit, insight and sensitivity around the grounds. The remaining works were shown in Bournville's technical college, where the small classrooms functioned as somewhat dog-eared white cubes for the likes of Lawrence Weiner, Julian Opie and Gerhard Metz. While it was nice that the building's modest integrity wasn't effaced, this aspect of the show functioned best as a serving station for visitors to what was perhaps the most intriguing example of a site-specific project I've seen in Britain. 'In the Midst of Things' didn't simply use its site as a foil for artworks. The site and artworks interpreted and enriched each other on equal terms, whether marking parallels or differences between the post-Modern present and the Victorian past.